“Go to Italy. It’s a peaceful country, nothing much ever happens there.”
I’ve been in a giallo mood the last few days, so I thought I might take a look at the films that reinvigorated the genre. Gialli had existed before Dario Argento’s first film, starting with the yellow covered crime novels of the 1930’s (giallo means “yellow” in Italian) and showing up as films like Mario Bava’s classic Blood and Black Lace (1964). It took Dario Argento and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage to make the genre a true cultural phenomenon however, and the 1970’s were the heyday of the giallo. I haven’t seen all of them – and probably never will – but I sometimes feel the pull of stylish violence and convoluted plots.
I like to start off reviews of classic movies like this with my memory or experience with them. I don’t know if it’s helpful or not, but I just like people to know where I’m coming from, my particular biases/favoritism towards films I’ve already seen. Unfortunately, I can’t do that with Dario Argento’s first film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. I know I’ve seen it – watching it this time around I found the key scenes and set pieces familiar enough – but I couldn’t tell you WHEN I first saw it. I’d like to think it was back in the days of VHS, but I’ve looked at the two VHS covers for the US releases and neither look familiar. (The one from United looks awesomely 80’s in an Asia album cover sort of way.)
The more I think about it, the more likely it seems that I saw it through Netflix back when they were strictly a DVD-by-mail outfit. I know I went on a bit of a spree when they first started getting some of the obscure titles I hadn’t been able to see or hadn’t seen in years. (Like Zombie or Videodrome.) My Netflix activity list only goes back to 2013 and is probably the streaming only version, so I can’t check. But yeah, I think if I’d seen Bird in my formative horror-watching years, I would have remembered it.
I was lucky enough to trade for a copy of the 2017 Arrow Limited Edition of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. The packaging is pretty sharp, with a solid slipcase holding the Blu-ray case, a poster and a booklet with a few essays. Lobby card reproductions are included in the Blu-ray case.
Quality wise – well, it’s the best I’ve ever seen it, but I’ve probably only seen it on DVD before. With nothing to compare it to, all I can say is it looks extremely good for a movie released in 1970. The info on the box says this is a new restoration and, with my limited technical knowledge, it seems they did a fantastic job. Well worth picking up in the regular Arrow release.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), a brass, crass American writer living in Rome is heading back to his apartment when he sees a beautiful woman in white being assaulted by a mysterious figure in black. Racing to her aid he finds himself trapped between two glass walls, unable to help as the attacker escapes and is forced to watch as the woman struggles for breath and life. The woman survives and Sam is drawn into the investigation, which appears to be part of a larger pattern of attacks against young women around the city.
Initially a suspect, Sam finds himself pursuing and pursued by the real killer, all while trying to decipher a general suspicion that he’s seen something during the attack that could be important. The only question is – will he and his friends survive his amateur pursuit of the killer?
There are things that happen in the film before that first attack – there’s scenes of a killer preparing and his target walking the streets, there’s a scene with Sam and his editor talking about the publication of his newest book, a guide to the identification of birds. (This is where we get a first indicator of Sam’s crassness – he’s far more interested in the check than the book.) However, it’s that first attack in the art gallery that causes you to sit up and take notice. Because it’s… well, it’s beautiful. A brightly lit white space framed in glass, a woman in white with a splash of red on her torso, the black-garbed figure dashing into the shadows. It’s startling and riveting. While tame by modern standards (and very tame by Argento standards) it’s still difficult to watch as the woman struggles, reaching out to Sam with blood-soaked hands and with him unable to do anything but impotently pound on the glass that separates them.
So, yeah, I like this film.
I like the characters – Tony Musante has a definite charisma that makes you like Sam, even if he’s a bit of a prick sometimes, particularly to his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendal – who does yeoman’s work with a thankless role). The detective in charge of the case, Inspector Morisini (Enrico Maria Salerno) is more likeable and more competent than you might expect from an Argento film – even if he’s unable to keep a foreign citizen from meddling in a case, or even keep his own men from being killed.
Everything I’ve read about The Bird With the Crystal Plumage mentions how the film was a watershed for Italian cinema. It revived and energized a genre – the giallo – that was moribund and failing, turning it into the one thing the Italian public wanted to see at the cinema. It also established a number of images and plot points that became standard for gialli going forward: Killers always wear gloves. Beautiful woman are always threatened. Killings are always stylish set pieces. The titles should be baroque and only tangentially related to the film. Finally, the plots must be intricate and feature several twists and turns before a final reveal. (That those plots make sense or even be internally consistent was not a requirement.)
Coming to the relatively film late in my Argento viewing I find it to be one of the most straightforward and restrained films in his body of work. The plot is complicated, yes, but easy enough to follow (if you ignore some of the dead ends) and the twist is telegraphed fairly broadly, at least for me. The characters are more fully fleshed out than some of his later films and the supporting actors make the most of what material they’re given.
Even the killings aren’t as elaborate or violent as they would come to be in Deep Red or Opera. That being said, it’s almost more difficult to watch at times. There’s a scene in which Julia is threatened by the killer. She’s trapped in her apartment and the killer is slowly chopping away at the door. She isolated, unable to call for help and has no way to escape. The scene seems endlessly long as she tries, desperately, to find a way to survive, before collapsing in terror to await the inevitable. It felt somehow darker and more cruel than later films where the violence made things quicker and the terror of the victims is thus mercifully curtailed.
One of the other things I noticed this time around was the lack of the distinctive Argento/Goblin soundtrack. I realize it’s probably a late-seventies/eighties thing, but I found myself looking for that synthesizer. Not to say the soundtrack is bad – Ennio Morricone doesn’t do bad soundtracks. It’s got an unsettling children’s chorus during scenes with the killer and is generally serviceable. There’s also more of a sense of humor than Argento’s later films (though I found this to be the case in Four Flies on Grey Velvet as well). “Bring out the perverts!” Made me laugh, as did Moricini’s line that one person “belongs with the cross-dressers, not the perverts!” (And the cross-dresser’s response, “I should hope not.”)
The end sequences are a bit drawn out – including a chase sequence that is primarily Sam running into a shot and asking if anyone has seen a particular character before racing out again – but it has some great shots, like Sam standing in a street while the camera pulls away to show what a maze the city is. Some might find the ending a little bit anti-climactic, but I still enjoy watching a ‘hero’ character forced into a situation where they’re the ones in need of rescue.
The Bottom Line
For a first film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (said bird appears in approximately 10 seconds of the film) is an assured and masterful debut. It’s still a low-budget Italian slasher flick, if you get right down to it, and if you don’t like gialli in general, this is not going to float your boat. If you don’t mind a little flash to your murder and a little nonsense to your plot twists, though, it’s a pretty fantastic first film from one of the greats.